BP, Better Buildings and Bacteria-Bots

The End of the World…Or the End of the World As We Know It? The Gulf oil nightmare deepened, as crude oozed deeper into Louisiana’s wetlands and British Petroleum sputtered in its attempt to “top kill” the leak. Yet as the Deepwater Horizon officially surpassed Exxon Valdez to become America’s worst oil spill, another, quieter event seemed destined to compete with it in the history books. Craig Venter created a bacterial cell that is, as he called it, “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”

The biofuels community immediately pondered what it all meant, while we hoped Venter’s computer might upgrade the Labrador retriever. No more hair on the couch? Combine this revelation with the announcement of the first fuel cell implant that could power a pacemaker, and it became clear the energy revolution has barely blinked awake.

More Oil in the Gulf… The Deepwater Horizon spill took the express toward Florida and the Atlantic states as it entered the Loop Current, and several fisheries were closed.

…And Less Oil in the Tank: Meanwhile, President Obama signed a memorandum that will for the first time require trucks to meet a minimum fuel standard by 2014. Today, America’s truck fleet consumes more than two million barrels of oil a day and averages a pathetic 6.1 miles per gallon.

Midwest: The New Hotbed of Cleantech? A burst of announcements demonstrated that other Midwestern states are starting to make like Michigan and bet the future on cleantech. General Electric won a contract to supply five wind turbines to America’s first freshwater wind farm, slated for 2012 on the Ohio coast of Lake Erie. And that’s not all for the Buckeye State: Electric-vehicle company Coda said it would likely build a battery-assembly plant there. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a Spanish company unveiled plans for a wind-turbine and solar-components factory, and Indiana officials planned to roll out the red carpet for a delegation from China to discuss joint ventures in electric cars, in addition to the Think City factory that’s already on the books.

Silicon Valley Gets Glam: When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair reinvented himself as a cleantech venture capitalist, he overshadowed the other celebrity event of the week: the kickoff of the Green Products Innovation Institute. Funded and endorsed by heavyweights like Wal-Mart, Google, Herman Miller and Brad Pitt, the GPII aims to be a third-party registry and establish standards for a new generation of chemicals. Its goal: to end the era where “endocrine disruptor” and “baby bottle” appear in the same sentence.

Toyota Hooks Up with Tesla: Toyota became the $50 million sugar daddy for Tesla, as the sexy electric-sportscar company moves into digs that are way too big for it. At first Tesla will curl up in a smallish corner of the massive, recently shuttered NUMMI plant in Fremont, California. Not that Toyota is done with sensible; it is reportedly working on a seven-seater Prius.

Popular Mechanics simulated the wonders and woes of driving an electric car in 2020, and car manufacturers announced that the electric car won’t be silent after all. It will make some sound so the deaf, blind, distracted, and earbud-wearing populace will know what hit them.

Meanwhile, Honda said it’s not so sure about the whole electric-car thing.

Buildings Beyond LEED: Yale Environment 360 wondered why building owners interested in saving money don’t seek out “building commissioning.” The practice is essentially a physical checkup for a structure’s energy-using systems, like ventilation, and often yields fixes that can save tens of thousands of dollars — even in buildings with that shiny LEED logo.

Triple Pundit took a look at Building Information Modeling, a 3-D simulation of heating, cooling, water and other systems that help construction managers avoid dumb and costly mistakes. Can’t come too soon; a Pike Research study estimates that by 2020 the world will install 53 billion square feet of green-certified space, a 900 percent increase from today.

The Week’s Best Ideas

Panera, the bread restaurant, is conducting an experiment in enlightened capitalism. In St. Louis it founded a sub-chain called Panera Cares Cafe that has day-old bread, but no cashier. Instead, you pay what you think you can afford, and if you can’t you donate your time. No word yet on whether St. Louis has seen a spike in free lunches.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory says that if India made a dramatic investment in energy efficient lightbulbs, refrigerators, irrigation pumps and the like, it could wipe out its notorious electricity shortages within three years.

The “Geobacter” project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst published the results of its mind-bending research into electrofuels. Researchers established bacteria colonies that feed off electrons from a solar-powered electrode. On a diet of water and atmospheric CO2, the bacteria “exhaled” acetate, from which many fuels and chemicals can be made.

California Synaptics told GreenTech TV how it greens the business by buying used office furniture, giving discounts to employees who bring their own dishware to the cafeteria, and offering prime parking and car detailing to employees who carpool.

Finally, a book review at Off-Grid gives useful advice on how to screen calls with a microwave, or cook a salmon in your dishwasher.

Article by David Ferris appearing courtesy Matter Network.

photo: Ken Lund

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